The secret's in the sauce


They call them grand. Sometimes mother, or leading or classic. Others are contemporary or modern. All of them are sauces, and they can take a dish from bland to bold; blase to brilliant.

But many home cooks shy away from all but the simplest. Perhaps the intimidation starts with the very jumble of terms. And even if you can work your way through the glossary, next up will be a whole set of "thou shalt'' and "thou shalt nots,'' including "thou shalt not eat sauce because it's bad for you.''

After taking a daylong workshop in sauces at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, I was convinced that this was pretty rigid business. But once I took the lessons into my home kitchen, and talked with othercooks, I discovered the rules aren't as golden as they seem.

With very little practice, any home cook can stir up Mandarin Sauce, a Tomato-Tarragon Pan Sauce or a mellow White Wine Sauce that brings the taste of fine restaurant dining home whether for a weeknight meal or a Saturday night dinner party.

Let's start with some of those terms. Grand, mother, leading and classic are all ways of describing sauces that are the foundation for many variations. Veloute is a nice example. It's made with chicken or fish stock, a simple roux and salt and pepper. It's the basis for supreme sauce, which is veloute plus cream, and vin blanc, which is veloute plus shallots, butter and herbs.

Modern or contemporary sauces are the other major category. They are sauces that do not necessarily follow all the classical steps. "They are less time-consuming, lighter in texture and full of flavor,'' said Hilary White, executive chef at 103 West. "That's what we are really looking for in today's cuisine.''

The most effort on the part of the home cook should be directed to making good stocks and always keeping some on hand, White suggests. Stock is the real "secret'' to many good sauces, including several that can be made quickly to jazz up weeknight meals as well as special occasion menus.

Now, for another glossary moment. Stock is made from bones and is not to be confused with broth, which is made from bones and meat. Bouillon, by the way, is another word for broth.

Classic demiglace is made from veal stock and a brown sauce heavily reduced; but the modern use of the term demiglace often refers simply to a reduction of any type of stock, which more accurately would be called jus.

"A good cook will always have some stock in the freezer, the refrigerator or on the stove,'' said White. "Though they take some time, the thing to remember is they are not high maintenance. You don't have to stand over it. Just throw the ingredients in and let it cook.''

Once you've got a stock, you're well on your way to sauce. Most sauces will call for a reduction of the stock and other liquids, which means cooking at a high enough temperature to evaporate some of the liquid. This will condense the flavor. This doesn't have to take forever. In fact, for small amounts, the reduction time can be as little as five minutes.

Thickeners are the next step - though not every sauce has to be thick. Many classic sauces call for a roux, or a mixture of flour and butter that has been lightly browned.

Like stock, you can make roux, chill it, wrap it and keep it in the refrigerator until needed. There's one golden rule to remember: if it's cold roux, add hot stock, and hot roux, cold stock. This will help prevent lumps and give a better consistency.

But making sauce modern-style relies more on adding cream or butter to thicken a sauce near the end of cooking time. Thus the health concerns, but most find with a bit of experimentation, the amounts of butter or cream can be tailored to meet dietary needs. Thinner sauces still have flavor.

Another quick way to thicken a sauce is by adding cornstarch or arrowroot diluted in a small amount of water. One more tip: When a recipe calls for cooking a sauce until it coats the back of the spoon, simply dip the spoon in the sauce and then run your finger across the back. If you can still see the path of your finger after a few seconds, the spoon is coated.

Once these few fundamentals are mastered to suit your taste standards, unleash your creativity and cook up some new combinations. As Chef Diedier Chantefort at Le Cordon Bleu explained: "The ancient Egyptians really started the whole idea of making different sauces. Since that time, chefs have added every imaginable ingredient.''

So make some stock and take some liberty and don't worry about the terms. Just call it sauce.


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